Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom reflects on the assassination of President Lincoln, and the funeral procession that offered a bitter reminder of the war’s unfinished business.
The final episode opens with the body of President Lincoln lying in state in New York’s City Hall. Major Morehouse has arranged for a private viewing of the slain president before he heads off with Detective Corcoran and Doctor Freeman on a mission to help track down Lincoln’s killer, the well known actor John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s assassination shocked the entire nation. Even in New York, where the president had never been politically popular and indeed was widely reviled, mourning and grief found expression in the streets, shops, and countless private homes. The patriotic fervor and the celebrations of victory accompanying the war’s end were now mixed with deep sorrow and a sense of tragedy.
After his death on April 15, a train with Lincoln’s bier made its way through major Northern cities, en route to the martyred president’s final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. An estimated seven million Americans paid their respects at elaborate ceremonies held in various cities, or by lining the tracks along the funeral journey. Lincoln’s embalmed body arrived in New York on April 24, and the next day the casket was transferred to a hearse drawn by 16 gray horses. Amidst large throngs of spectators, the procession moved along slowly up Broadway, past Astor Place to Union Square, for a memorial ceremony. From there it went to City Hall, where the next day some 100,000 mourners filed past. Among them was a grief stricken Edwin Booth, the actor and loyal Union man, who was stunned to learn of his brother’s deed. Earlier in the year Booth had seen a young man at a railroad in Jersey City being pushed by a crowd between the platform and train. Booth quickly grabbed him by the coat collar and saved him from being crushed to death or suffering horrible injury. The young man recognized Booth and introduced himself—he was Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s son.
For black New Yorkers, Lincoln’s funeral offered a bitter reminder of the war’s unfinished business. The Common Council and the Chamber of Commerce had rejected their petitions to be included in the procession, barring blacks from marching. James Pennington, a former slave who had achieved fame as an author and minister, summed up his community’s anger by asking, “Of all other classes, was he not emphatically the President of the colored man? The spirit that would exclude colored men from the President’s funeral is the same that murdered him.” Only a last minute order from the War Department allowed black participation. Some 200 African American mourners, protected by the Metropolitan Police and federal troops, marched at the very rear of the procession. Their banner read: “Abraham Lincoln Our Emancipator, To Millions of Bondsmen He Liberty Gave.”